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You don’t have to be born into design royalty to become a successful fashion designer. In fact, some of the biggest names in fashion began their careers in the most humble of circumstances. Michael Kors started as a sales assistant in a trendy New York City boutique, Alexander McQueen worked as a tailor’s apprentice, and Coco Chanel began as a simple clerk in a hosiery shop. Whether you aim to land a job at a top fashion label, start your own business, or work as a freelancer, your background won’t matter as much as your commitment and determination to succeed.
A fashion designer is a professional who creates clothing and accessory designs, often working within the fashion industry. They use their creativity and knowledge of fashion trends, textiles, and design techniques to develop unique and visually appealing garments and accessories.
In addition to their technical responsibilities, fashion designers may also work closely with marketers and sales professionals to create successful marketing campaigns and promote their designs. They must stay up-to-date with the latest trends in the industry and be able to forecast emerging trends to create designs that balance creative expression with commercial appeal.
Fashion designers typically work collaboratively with other skilled artisans, craftsmen, and production staff to bring their creative vision to life. This involves researching and brainstorming concepts, sketching designs, and selecting materials that will be used to create the final product. They also oversee the creation of prototypes, test the durability and quality of the product, and work with manufacturers to ensure that the final product meets the intended design specifications.
They are involved in every step of the design process, from conceptualization to the final product. Some of the responsibilities of a fashion designer include:
Ready-to-wear fashion is a term used in the fashion industry to describe mass-produced clothing sold in standard sizes in ready-to-wear collections. Ready-to-wear fashion is designed to be worn without the need for significant alterations, unlike haute couture or bespoke clothing.
Also called prêt-à-porter or off-the-rack, ready-to-wear fashion is typically produced by mass-market retailers and is designed to appeal to a wide range of customers. Ready-to-wear designs often take inspiration from luxury fashion. Still, they are created with more affordable materials and construction methods to remain accessible to a broader range of consumers.
Economy fashion draws inspiration from seasonal trends in ready-to-wear fashion and offers an even more affordable alternative to fast fashion. Fast fashion focuses on producing low-cost clothing as quickly as possible. The goal of economy fashion is to produce a massive quantity of clothing for a relatively low price – often at the expense of quality and style.
Economy fashion is typically produced by mass-market retailers who use the cheapest materials possible, hire unskilled labor, and employ automated production techniques to churn out large quantities of clothing in the most efficient manner possible. As a result, economy fashion garments have a short lifespan. They are often poorly made, fall apart quickly, and go out of style just as fast. Still, the low price point makes them appealing to budget-conscious consumers.
Fast fashion describes apparel that is quickly manufactured and brought to market as cheaply as possible. Fast fashion aims to produce marketable, low-cost clothing collections that are inspired by the latest fashion trends. Unlike luxury and high-end ready-to-wear fashion collections that are developed and produced several months in advance, fast fashion collections are designed, produced, and brought to market in a lightning-quick process – often jumping from the catwalk to retail hangers in a matter of weeks.
This quick turnaround time is possible because fast-fashion retailers use low-cost materials, simple construction methods, and mass-market production techniques. As a result, fast fashion designs may be out of style or obsolete in a matter of months. Still, the low price point makes them appealing to fashion-savvy, trend-conscious consumers who want to stay up-to-date without breaking the bank.
Before embarking on your journey to become a fashion designer, it’s crucial to decide what type of designer you want to be and what type of work you want to do. This decision can help you determine the specific skills you need to focus on and the type of education or training that will be most valuable to you.
For example, a bachelor’s degree in Fashion Design can be beneficial for those who want to work for major fashion houses, as many of these employers require a degree as a prerequisite for employment. But, for those who want to work as a Pattern Maker or Seamstress – neither of which requires a degree – the best approach may be to focus on developing their technical skills and working their way up in the industry through internships and apprenticeships. This is why the first step in your journey should always be to decide what type of designer you want to become.
Summary of Steps
The journey to becoming a fashion designer is not a one-size-fits-all adventure. In fact, there are two distinct paths that aspiring designers can take to reach their destination.
In the steps outlined below, we’ll explore both avenues, offering you a roadmap to becoming a fashion designer. Whether you’re inclined towards formal education or prefer the independence of self-directed learning, these paths cater to your unique talents and aspirations.
Earn a Degree in Fashion Design
Network in College
Apply for Jobs
Create a Plan for Self-Directed Study
Develop Drawing & Illustration Skills
Study Color Theory
Explore Fabrics & Fabric Manipulation
Study Garment Construction
Learn About Product Development
Learn Business Practices
Acquire knowledge about the fashion industry’s business aspects, including marketing and sales.
Research Your Customer
Identify and understand your target audience’s preferences, needs, and trends to create appealing designs.
The most traditional route to becoming a fashion designer is to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Fashion Design. A degree in Fashion Design provides a structured and formal education in the field of fashion, covering everything from the technical aspects of garment construction and pattern-making to the creative elements of design and concept development.
At the typical American fashion school, you will spend three to four years taking fine arts classes and studying drawing, color composition, form, pattern making, fabric selection, draping, cutting, sewing, costing, promotion, and production techniques. You will also take courses in computer-aided design (CAD), textiles, figure drawing, and the history of fashion design, all while learning how to take your ideas, develop them, and refine them into an entire collection.
It goes without saying that school is not for everyone. These words are especially true if you are trying to start your own design business, become a freelancer, or get a job in the fashion industry in a non-design role. The truth is, you can go to school to pursue any of these career options, but realistically, you don’t need to.
If studying fashion design in school isn’t for you, remember that there are numerous examples of famous designers who entered the field with no formal training. You will still need to educate yourself, but most of the concepts and techniques you learn in four years at fashion school can be learned in a self-taught environment.
Typically, fashion and design schools require at least a few courses in art history, costume history, and in some cases, more niched electives, like Broadway costume history. If you’re studying independently, you’ll want to cover at least the basics. Be sure to study the top fashions in each decade, particularly the 20s, 60s, and 70s.
Look at how silhouettes, fabrics, and color schemes have changed over time, and pay attention to how fashion history tends to repeat itself. Branch out into international fashion and study the history of clothing and style in Japan, France, and other fashion-forward countries. A robust background in fashion and design history will help create a solid career foundation on which you can build.
“Design process” is an approach for breaking down a large project into manageable components. In fashion design, it’s the process of taking your ideas, collecting information, brainstorming, gathering feedback, and refining your ideas to create designs and assemble a complete collection.
As a designer in training, you must learn the key processes, teach yourself to recognize good design, and develop your own methods if you want to grow. Once you are a working designer, you won’t have time to elaborate on every step of the design process, so it’s critically important for you to practice each step until you become much faster and more efficient.
While you don’t have to be Vincent Van Gogh to have a career in fashion, learning basic art concepts and how to create figure drawings and fashion illustrations to bring your designs to life is critical. Here are three important types of art that are important to the fashion industry and how you can develop your skills in each.
Once you’ve learned how to draw figures and the fashions to go on them, you’ll need to bring them to life with color. Watercolors, pastels, high-quality markers, and other mediums can help you illustrate the color stories in your designs and collections. Make sure to invest in good quality materials with rich pigments that allow you to depict slight shifts in color and shade.
Success in the fashion industry today requires the ability to use computer programs (CAD programs) to render fashion designs, tech packs, flats, and more. The most commonly used design CAD is Adobe Illustrator, and it’s a must for any aspiring fashion designer.
Other design programs are available, like Procreate, but aren’t nearly as widely used as Adobe and most likely, you’d end up needing to learn how to use both. If you do choose to learn an alternative program, make sure the files are compatible with Illustrator. You’ll also need to develop basic photo editing skills to insert your flats into your tech packs and line sheets, as well as a wide variety of other situations.
Next to fabric, color is one of the most fundamental aspects of fashion design. In fact, every design or art major studies the theory of color and how it’s used in their industry. In fashion, color tells stories and evokes emotion, and it’s often the first thing that consumers look for when choosing a garment. If a garment is absolutely perfect in fit, fabric, and price, but is the wrong color, the consumer will most likely not make the purchase.
Fashion colleges talk about color theory and stories in every class and for every project. Independent learners should start with the color wheel and dive into published resources on color theory. Look for articles on color usage in fashion published by reputable art and design websites. There’s also a wealth of videos on YouTube and similar streaming services that cover color theory and how to use color in fashion design that you can use to expand your knowledge on color theory.
Study both common and uncommon fabrics, which fabrics are frequently used for which projects, and which fabrics are often used together. Use your collection ideas to further your knowledge about particular fabrics.
For example, if you’re developing a bridal collection, you can study satin, charmeuse, and chiffon in detail. At the completion of your project, you should be well-versed in how to work with these materials. Your next project might be women’s winter outerwear, or children’s wear, which will give you an opportunity to experiment and learn about an entirely new set of fabrics.
You should learn how to sew a few basic stitches by hand, as well as operate a simple sewing machine. You should be familiar enough with sewing and pattern draping to be able to communicate well with the team producing your samples and finished products.
A great way to learn about garment construction is to visit clothing stores. Try things on and feel them with your hands. Notice the fabric, the cut, and the stitching. Look at what materials are used for lining garments like jackets and dresses and evaluate the quality of each piece compared to its price. Make sure you visit stores in-person — browsing online won’t give you the tactile information about garment construction that being hands-on will.
If you plan to work under another designer or for a company, you don’t need to have robust sewing skills. If you’d like to start your own line, however, it’s important that you be proficient enough to sew your own samples.
The more you know how to do from the start of a design project to its completion, the more creative control you exercise over it. When a production team creates your samples, there’s a chance that a few precious details get lost in translation. If you know how to sew well, you can push your creative boundaries and increase your chances of success.
When a design has been completed, the product is ready to be developed. This process involves learning how to draw fashion flat sketches, how to create a tech pack using a template, and how to spec out garments.
Fashion flat sketches also called flat sketches or just “flats” in the fashion industry, are technical drawings of the front and back of a garment if it were laid out flat. The sketch shows details like seams, hardware, and topstitching, and is necessary for every design that goes to production. A tech pack is a sheet of information given to manufacturers that includes all the necessary technical specs for the garment to be made. Tech packs typically include materials, colors, measurements, labels, and other production details.
Learning how to create good flats and tech packs can also help fund your career as you continue to learn how to become a fashion designer. You can sell templates or commissioned pieces to other designers who want to focus on the creative aspects instead of the technical.
Becoming a fashion designer, especially one that is well known, requires more than just indulging your artistic side. Sales, production, merchandising, and distribution are equally important to establishing your brand. This means that in addition to learning how to become a fashion designer, you’ll also need to learn how to operate a business. The more you know about shipping, cash management, and profit and loss, the more control you will have over the production and sales of your designs.
You don’t necessarily have to be a business mogul to be successful, but you do need some basic entrepreneurial skills if you want to create your own line. Look for books that summarize the basics of running a business that can be adapted to the specifics of the fashion industry. This provides you with a foundational skillset that can be built upon over time with experience.
In today’s political and economic climate, sustainability in fashion is no longer an option — it’s a necessity. Many fashion schools don’t do much to cover sustainability, or they may not stay current on the latest eco-friendly design trends, leaving both traditional students and independent learners to discover sustainability in fashion on their own.
Delve into current textile news and resources to learn how to create sustainable designs. Learn about eco-friendly fabrics and other materials, production processes that are less harmful to the environment, and ethical approaches to garment production. Look for published content from reputable sources on low-waste pattern cutting, water waste reduction, and fair-trade sourcing.
As you learn sustainable practices, apply them to your designs over time. There’s no need to suddenly become a completely ecologically sound fashion designer in one fell swoop. Simply keep sustainability in mind as you grow your career and look for new opportunities to apply eco-friendly practices.
Knowing your audience and understanding fashion trends is the key to success in any apparel business, not just fashion design. Since clothing and accessories are so personal, and many people use fashion as an expression of themselves, it’s even more important that designers understand the end customer.
Basic market research (even on social media) can help you learn what your ideal customers earn and how much they spend, where and how they like to shop, and their lifestyle preferences. You should have a solid grasp of your target audience’s needs and wants, in order to develop marketing strategies aimed to meet both.
Consider talking with a stylist to learn about what their customers are asking for and what consumer trends they are following. Speaking to other professionals in the fashion industry is useful because it helps you incorporate other opinions and learn more about the market you are targeting.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual salary for fashion designers in 2022 was $87,760, with the lowest 10 percent earning under $34,660 and the highest 10 percent earning over $139,920.
However, it is important to note that salaries can vary greatly depending on the industry in which the designer is employed. For example, fashion designers working in the Motion Picture and Video industries earned an annual mean wage of $113,950 in 2022, while those working in apparel, piece goods, and notions merchant wholesalers earned a median salary of $90,510. On the other hand, fashion designers working in the electronic shopping and mail-order houses industries earned a median salary of $50,580 in 2022.
Fashion designers typically spend four years earning a bachelor’s degree before beginning their careers. A bachelor’s degree provides students with an essential foundation in the field, including knowledge of fashion history, design principles, brand development, and CAD software.
Earning a degree is not the only route to becoming a fashion designer. Many fashion designers are self-taught or have completed short-term training programs. However, most design firms prefer candidates who have demonstrated their talent and commitment to the field by completing a formal education program.
Fashion designers use math extensively when creating patterns, measuring sample garments for fitting, and creating trim pages for the factory. In addition, they often use mathematical formulas to calculate fabric yardage requirements and prices. Fashion designers also rely on their understanding of math when working with buyers and merchandisers to negotiate prices and quantities.
Geometry is also used extensively in the daily work of a fashion designer, particularly when designers are draping fabric on a form to create a garment or mapping a two-dimensional pattern that has to fit on a three-dimensional body.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics recommends that fashion designers earn a bachelor’s degree from a post-secondary institution accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design. Fashion schools with NASAD accreditation are considered to have met the highest standards for educational quality in the field.
Along with academic degrees, aspiring fashion designers should seek out opportunities to gain real-world experience through internships or other hands-on learning opportunities. These experiences can provide invaluable insight into how fashion designers work and the day-to-day reality of the job.
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